What makes Sarasota great? Sunshine, sparkling water and miles of sandy beaches are an enormous part of our city's allure, but fresh Gulf grouper sandwiches, live theater, killer chocolate martinis, homemade tortillas, sophisticated shopping and championship golf are just a few of the other assets-thousands upon thousands of them-you named in this year's "Best of 2006" contest. By mail and by Internet, the ballots arrived in record-setting numbers, and the competition came down to the wire in many of our 74 categories.
As our city keeps expanding, so do the opportunities and experiences, from exotic restaurants and ultra-luxurious spas to trendy boutiques and specialty services, and you honored many of those newcomers along with tried-and-true establishments and attractions.
Our list includes both winners and finalists in every category, with the winners listed first, then finalists in alphabetical order. Congratulations to all-and to you for deciding to live in this best of all possible cities! To learn more about our winners, be sure to tune in to ABC-7's "Best of 2006" coverage during evening newscasts from April 28 through May 19.
FOOD & DRINK
Café On the Bay; Ophelia's On the Bay
Upstairs in Marina Jack's lavish dining room, you can feast on award-winning blue crab cakes and black grouper while gazing out over Sarasota Bay and downtown Sarasota. Downstairs, the open-air raw bar is perfect for casual fare and cocktails.
Michael's On East; Stonewood Grill
Patrick's combines old-time swank with a casual ambiance. People from all walks of life share the bar, swapping stories, watching the game and digging into juicy cheeseburgers and steaks. A true American classic.
Mel's Diner; Vernona's "Executive Lunch" at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Corn fritter cakes, fruit Jell-O, liver and onions, spaghetti (nothing "pasta" about it)-these are a few of our favorite Yoder's entrées. But after dinner, there's dessert, and that means choosing between 25 types of homemade pies. For close, affordable encounters of Amish food at its best, there's nothing like Yoder's.
Café Baci; Caragiulo's
At Carrabba's, kids play with pizza dough, chefs prepare dishes at Mario Andretti pace in the open kitchen, and adults kick back in the festive buzz with hearty Italian fare. The "Thrill of the Grill," a lusty mix of grilled seafood and meat, will leave you flushed with the cheer of it all.
China Palace; Oriental Buffet
For fast and affordable Chinese food, buffet style, Mrs. Chen's will not disappoint. We're not sure what Mr. Chen is doing, but the missus has her hands full with the daily crowds who are willing to wait in line to dig into the spicy fare.
JoTo's Japanese Steakhouse; Pacific Rim
At DaRuMa, diners can enjoy tableside Teppan-style dining-or go for the traditional Japanese mat seating or sushi bar. And whether you're watching flashing knives or floating sailboats on Sarasota Bay, the view is great wherever you look.
Siam Orchid; Thailand Restaurant; Tropical Thai
Bangkok features classic specialties that hail from the north, south, lowland and coastal regions of Thailand. And it's rich in traditional décor, with exemplary service and a killer Thai tea, too.
C'est La Vie
Café L'Europe; French Affair
Zut alors, how long has it been since you had a leek and tomato crêpe, a delectable salade Niçoise or a pâté sandwich served on a crispy baguette? Francophiles file into this casual bistro or sit curbside smoking their Gauloises, sipping café au lait and dreaming of la vie en rose.
Central/South American Restaurant
The octopus ceviche at Selva Grill is marinated in a Peruvian black olive sauce and topped with sliced avocados and toasted bread. Sound tasty? Better make a reservation fast. This winner fills tables.
El Adobe; Two Señoritas
Mi Pueblo is the next-best thing to a Mexican vacation. Start with a margarita de oro, follow with tortilla soup and enchilada roja, and finish with a classic, creamy flan. With a lively mariachi band adding to the mix, Mexico seems only a few salsa steps away.
Restaurant to Propose
Ophelia's On the Bay
Michael's On East; Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Shimmering bay waters, award-winning cuisine, gracious service and stunning sunsets. Pop the question, already!
Restaurant for Seafood
Barnacle Bill's Seafood
Bonefish Grill; Captain Brian's
This always busy restaurant is famous for good seafood, a respectable wine selection, amicable atmosphere and affordable prices. Must-haves include Barnacle Bill's bouillabaisse and the seafood risotto. None of the four locations is on the waterfront, but who's looking out the window?
Restaurant to Seal the Deal
Michael's On East
Fleming's; Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
This is where the cognoscenti flock to engage in serious talk over serious food. Michael's classic décor, sophisticated menu and discreet service create the ideal environment for the art of networking.
(opened in 2005)
Mi Pueblo at University Walk Plaza
DJ's; Metro Coffee & Wine
This family-run restaurant offers specialties that reflect the cuisine of northern Mexico, including colorful dishes heaped with fresh homemade tortillas filled with all things spicy and good. Bring the kids, tap along to the mariachi band and enjoy an authentic taste of Mexico.
Ruth's Chris; Sam Seltzer's
Steak, anyone? The chefs at Fleming's cook theirs at 1,600 degrees to seal in the juices. Then, depending on how big a beef connoisseur you are, you can have up to 20 ounces of it. Twenty flaming ounces. Go ahead-worry about your cholesterol tomorrow.
Restaurant Wine List
Fred's; Michael's On East
Offering more than 100 wines, Fleming's is serious about catering to oenophiles. Can't decide? Try the "Wine Flight," which lets you experience three variations on a varietal at a time.
Broken Egg; Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Don't bother calling business bigwigs or powerful politicos before 9:30 a.m. weekdays-they're probably downing coffee and attacking stacks of cranberry nut pancakes at First Watch. The morning place to eat and meet.
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort Dining Room
First Watch; Vernona at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
How do we love the Colony brunch? Let us count the ways: fresh oysters, Gulf shrimp, prime rib, Belgian waffles, eggs Benedict, omelet stations, grilled mahi-mahi, fresh whipped cream, spiced beef stew and more. Did we mention the breathtaking view of the Gulf of Mexico?
Cà d'Zan at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota; Michael's On East
Sidle up to that ruinously handsome man or tragically mysterious woman. This popular watering hole is the place to sip, flirt, see and be seen. And if nothing else works out, you can always get a great dinner here, too.
Restaurant to Eat Outdoors
Mattison's City Grille; Old Salty Dog on City Island
Marina Jack's bustling open-air raw bar overlooks the marina and Sarasota Bay. Sit back with a beer, some oysters on the half-shell and conch chowder and enjoy Florida living the way it was meant to be.
Barnacle Bill's Seafood; Rosebud's
Skip lunch and head to Café Baci between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. for one of the best food deals in town. From the calamari fritti all the way to the tiramisu, customers will enjoy award-winning Café Baci cuisine-at award-winning prices.
There's nothing complicated about the pizza at Il Panificio. Choose from one of 10 varieties, watch it warm up in their always-fired pizza oven, sit under the outside umbrellas and see Main Street go by. Who said life had to be complicated?
Place for Dessert
Jolly; Michael's On East; Yoder's
The "dessert room," upstairs at Euphemia Haye, offers a dazzling display of desserts, including homemade pies (try the pecan), cakes, tarts and flambéed finales. The cherries jubilee (flamed with Kirshwasser) is both luscious and sexy; indulge at your own risk.
Place for Salad
Columbia; Olive Garden
At Sweet Tomatoes, salad doesn't always mean lettuce. The salad bar features a creative mix of alternatives, including field corn and wild rice, pineapple coconut slaw and tuna tarragon. Pile up that plate and don't be shy about going back for more; that's what this place is all about.
DaRuMa; JoTo's Japanese Steakhouse
Pacific Rim treats you to all the colors, scents, tastes and sounds a well-run sushi bar can provide. Ask the sushi chef for his recommendations, don't overdo the wasabi and remember to say domo arigato when you go. (You'll want to.)
Cheeburger Cheeburger; Hob Nob
Hearty, no-nonsense and egalitarian, the hamburger is a true American icon. Patrick's chefs serve theirs up grilled and unadorned for purists, or festooned with cheese, mushrooms, bacon and onions for the rest of us. As Teddy Roosevelt would say, it's "bully!"
Sonny's Oaks Open Pit; Woody's
Oaks Open Pit; Woody's
Founded in 1968, Sonny's offers small-town atmosphere and the best smoked fixin's you can find. Ribs, chicken, pork and beef are treated to Sonny's slow-smoked flavor and signature sweet barbecue sauce. Add a heap of fried okra and cornbread and you'll be licking your fingers for days.
Michael's On East
Morton's; Nellie's Deli
Michael's ranks right up there with the beaches and the Gulf as a major Sarasota asset. Maestro Phil Mancini and his able crew can turn events of all sizes and shapes into inspired experiences. Hand the worrying over to them and let the party begin.
Morton's; Publix; Toojay's
Nellie's gourmet market and deli are justly famous for their kosher-style sandwiches, home-style soups, salad bar and a deli case filled with side dishes and baked goods you'd swear were prepared in your grandma's kitchen. Want to give up cooking for a while? Just say "hello, deli" at Nellie's.
Publix; Whole Foods
A trip to Morton's expands the horizons of your culinary universe. You go in to buy fish and bread; you walk out with imported pastas, exotic pâtés and artisan cheeses. Morton's also offers meals to go, fine wines and an outstanding bakery. The shopping is almost as delicious as the food itself.
C'est La Vie; Morton's
Ever try to steer your cart past the bakery section at Publix without stopping? Those shelves and cases laden with fresh breads, pastries, petit fours, pies and specialty cakes cry out like sirens, urging you to indulge. Resistance is futile.
Ice Cream Store
Cold Stone Creamery; Kilwin's
One of the best things about living in a warm climate: Ice cream is always a welcome treat. The folks at Big Olaf know this. This Sarasota-based business is expanding across Florida, with four locations here. The ice cream is made locally and comes in 36 tantalizing flavors, including brand-new Butterfinger Blast.
Chocolate Martini at Ca d'Zan at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Chocolate Martini at Bonefish Grill; Espresso Martini at Fred's
The secret of master bartender Peter Whitely's chocolate martini? Instead of syrup, he uses chocolate ganache for an oh-so-smooth and creamy texture. Dessert or aperitif? One sip and it doesn't matter.
Bonefish Grill, Fred's
The art of happiness is alive and well at Chili's. The restaurant tempts us with no fewer than 10 varieties of margaritas, each more enticing than the last. Liquid libations include rum, Blue Curaçao, Midori, Cointreau, Chambord, Grand Marnier, mango juice, sour and grenadine and, si, tequila. Get happy!
ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT & SPORTS
Performing Arts Group
Asolo Theatre Company
Florida Studio Theatre; Sarasota Ballet
This season 14 acclaimed productions were presented at the Asolo's Mertz and Cook theaters, including works by Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton. Now in its 47th year, the Asolo Theatre Company plays a leading role in our reputation as a cultural capital.
Local Actor or Actress
John Arnold; Dick Smothers
Michel is an actor's actor. She's also a director, a philanthropist and powerhouse of a human being. Now in her 15th season at the Asolo, she performs at other regional theaters as well.
Florida Winefest & Auction Gala; Sarasota Film Festival Tribute Dinner
Although the UnGala Gala was founded 20 years ago as an antithesis to black-tie snootiness, it's now the hottest black-tie ticket in town. Set in the splendor of the Ringling Museum's courtyard, this glitzy October event kicks off Sarasota's social season and raises a heckuva lot of money for the museum.
Place to work out
Gold's Gym; Shapes
The YMCA is not just about dumbbells. Sarasota's three locations offer everything from ballroom dance lessons to martial arts to yoga and massage therapy, so you really have no excuse not to join. Today!
Festival or Special Event
Sarasota Film Festival
Arts Day; Florida Winefest & Auction
Why go to Hollywood when we bring the stars to Sarasota? Founded in 1998, this annual event showcases more than 100 movies and the filmmakers, writers, producers and stars who create them during a week of films, discussions, community outreach and glamorous parties. Could Sarasota become the next Cannes? C'est possible.
Place to watch a performance
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
FSU Center for the Performing Arts; Florida Studio Theatre
Frank Lloyd Wright's style lives on in this airy, intimate, purple seashell of a hall, which presents a diverse schedule of programs every year and has probably convinced many a cultured Midwesterner to make Sarasota their Florida home.
Place for Live Music
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
5 O'Clock Club; Cà d'Zan at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
Where else but the Van Wezel can you experience Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Tony Bennett, all in the space of a few weeks? The Van Wezel's performance line-up is the epitome of eclectic.
Place to Play Tennis
University Park Country Club
The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort; Meadows Country Club
With 11 lighted Har-Tru courts, lush landscaping, a USPTA- and USPTR-certified tennis instructor, USTA and local tournaments played on-site, University Park Country Club has major game.
Place to Play Golf
University Park Country Club
Meadows Country Club; TPC at Prestancia
University Park's picturesque and challenging Ron Garl-designed course has been rated topnotch by major golf magazines. The course, surrounded by pine and oak trees, stretches to 7,247 yards with five sets of tees to accommodate players of all skill levels.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
G.WIZ; South Florida Museum
The Ringling is not just about art on the walls, although its collection is world acclaimed. The Cà d'Zan mansion celebrates Venetian style gone tropical, and the Circus Museum roars with the art of the Big Top. Add courtyard concerts, cocktail gatherings, seminars and family programs, and you'll know why it's a Sarasota treasure.
Art Gallery (not museum)
Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art; Selby Gallery
If art depicting the creatures of the sea tickles your fancy, dive into the Wyland Gallery on St. Armands. This octopus' garden showcases Wyland paintings, prints, sculpture and collectibles, as well as works by Jim Warren, James Coleman, John Pitre, William DeShazo, Guy Harvey and others.
Attraction for Kids
Jungle Gardens; Mote Aquarium
G.WIZ offers an electric mix of education and entertainment at the edge of Sarasota Bay. Here, kids learn about Florida's natural environment, electricity, magnetism, sound and light-and the adults who take them get to feel like kids again. Gee whiz!
Siesta Key Public Beach
Siesta Key's beaches are globally known for their dazzling white sands and silky smooth texture. Patrolled by lifeguards and close to food and facilities, Siesta's public beach is a great place to bring the kids, the surfboards, the kayaks, pails, chairs, hampers and umbrellas-and hunker down for a few heavenly hours.
GOODS & SERVICES
New York Hair; Yellow Strawberry
It's no secret?everybody loves Diane K's two Sarasota salons. Why? In a word, service. "Each stylist is fiercely dedicated to serving the client," says Diane. "Our clients are pampered from the moment they walk in."
Admiral Travel; VIP World Travel
As a AAA member, you can buy earthquake insurance, plan an Amazon River cruise and plot a cross-country car trek. Walk into your local AAA with dreams of exploring the world, and walk out with the right tickets, maps and directions to do it.
Children's/Baby shop (not a department store)
Bennett's World for Children
Cuddlebugs; Gymboree; Little Bo-Tique
Bennett's World for Children offers an excellent selection of furniture, baby accessories, strollers, clothes and developmental toys. You'll find everything you need for any small, sweet and cuddly creature who happens to grace your life.
Neoderm; The Met
Ramona "Monee" Arpin is a perfectionist. She's also a highly trained aesthetician who practices her trade at Diane K's downtown salon. The inventor of her own make-up, "Monee," and an international trainer for all Bio Jouvance products and treatments, Arpin recently added eyelash extension treatments to her spa menu.
Sarasota Trading Company
Crissy Galleries; Jack Vinales
The folks at Sarasota Trading Company sell everything "unusual-new and old." We couldn't think of a better way to describe this enchanting shop filled with everything from antique Oriental furniture to vintage garden tools to handmade soaps and candles.
Barnes & Noble Borders; Main Book Shop
Borders; Main Book Shop
More than just a bookstore, Barnes & Noble is our version of the sidewalk café. Here you can anonymously meet a blind date, set up an impromptu business meeting and work furiously on your up-and-coming masterpiece. Oh-and buy a book, if you feel like it.
Bank of America
At Bank of America you can stash your money, secure a mortgage, buy an IRA, receive financial advice, obtain a credit card and direct your hard-earned pennies to a charitable effort. Did we mention the courteous tellers? A class act.
Mr. Florist Plants N' Things; Tiger Lily
Need two live Maine lobsters delivered to your home in a steel cooking pot with lobster bibs, seafood forks and a long-stemmed candle? No problem-Beneva Flowers will even throw in the butter warmer. From flowers to fish, Beneva Flowers delivers deluxe romantic experiences.
Pier One Imports; Robb & Stucky
What makes a home a home? All the good stuff inside, like designer towels, whimsical music boxes, sturdy garden tools and peach candles. Home Goods offers all things good to make your home your haven.
Kanes of Sarasota
Baers; Haverty's; Robb & Stucky
In 1949 Ed and Alyce Kane opened a modest furniture store that soon outgrew itself. Now a popular name in town for home design and furnishings, Kanes features premier furniture and accessories, window and floor coverings and innovative interior design services.
Designer Consigner; Laura Jean's Consignments
Established in 1962, this nonprofit shop directs a large portion of its proceeds to area cultural organizations. That means you can buy that vintage rhinestone necklace or Royal Grafton cup and saucer without guilt; it's good for the community, after all.
Paradox Annabelle's; Mary's On Main
Annabelle's; Mary's On Main
Susan Griggs has filled her gallery with a creative mix of artwork, crafts, jewelry and home accessories. We're talking whimsy with a capital "W," and funky with a capital "F." Check out Griggs' outrageous teapots made of feathers, glass, ceramics and wood.
Le Tennique; Swim City
Did you know that the bikini debuted in 1946-the same year as the Bikini Island atomic bomb tests? For affordable designer swimwear, Swim Mart is da bomb-even if you don't wear bikinis.
Body & Spirit; Diane K; Hollywood Salon & Spa
Indulge yourself at The Met, a full-service day spa dedicated to everything that does a body good. This center of pleasure is acclaimed for its impeccable service, from massage to restorative body care and cutting-edge treatments for skin, nails and hair.
Dillards; Saks Fifth Avenue; Soma by Chico's
Lingerie has been around since the ancient Sumerians, but it took Victoria's to unlock the secret. Once hidden, the humble undergarment now makes its own bold statement. Thanks to nubile models and barely-there styles, VS has become synonymous with sexy.
AAA Limousine; Double A Car Service
Need to rent a yacht-today? Longboat Limousine can pick you up in a 1961 Phantom V Rolls Royce limousine and transport you to your 29-foot luxury cabin cruiser in the height of fashion. If traveling in style is de rigueur for you, Longboat Limousine will not disappoint.
Michael the Cleaner Cove Cleaners; Main Street Cleaners
Cove Cleaners; Main Street Cleaners
Dry cleaning was discovered in 1855 by a Frenchman who accidentally overturned a kerosene lamp on his tablecloth. But you don't need to know the technical secrets up Michael the Cleaner's impeccably clean sleeves-only that your favorite jacket will return to you as fresh and clean as the day you got it.
Bay Village; Kobernick House at Meadows Park
The Glenridge offers ongoing programs in lifelong learning, wellness, travel and personal growth. With 90 acres of natural habitat, sparkling lakes, country-club style amenities and a state-of-the-art performance center, this is a haven for retired people who aren't the least bit tired.
Johnny's Car Wash
Beneva Car Wash; Eager Beaver; Evie's Car Wash
At Johnny's Car Wash, your car arrives covered in the dust and grime of daily life and leaves, after a splash of suds, shining like new. You'll feel renewed, too.
HOTSPOTS & HIGHLIGHTS
Strictly speaking, the keepers of our beaches prefer that our sand stay where it is. Dig your toes into it, build castles on it, lie submerged up to your neck in it-just leave it behind when you go.
Place to take visitors
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art; St. Armands Circle
If you lived in Paris, you'd take them to the Eiffel Tower; in Manhattan to the Empire State Building. Here? Take them to the beach; it's a free-and fabulous-way to inspire awe.
Place for a first date
Ophelia's On the Bay; St. Armands Circle
Pack the hamper with cheese, bread and wine and head out for the best seats in town. Spread a blanket, pop the cork and let the sun set while you ponder the enormity of love. No waiters, no bill and, best of all, no closing time.
Place to Ride out a Hurricane
New York City; The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
We spend thousands of dollars securing our "safe rooms" with all manner of luxe items to make our hurricane experience more pleasant. That said, if you're planning to stay home during the next big one, make sure your home is in Ohio.
Local TV Personality
Scott Dennis; Heidi Godman
You might not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but you need one to know how many miles an hour it's blowing. That's when we glue our eyes to chief meteorologist Bob Harrigan of ABC-7. He's tracked hurricanes for 20 years and knows how to keep us cool and collected during the onslaught.
University Park Country Club
Lakewood Ranch; The Meadows
This acclaimed residential master-planned community features single-family homes and estates designed around wooded areas, lakes, preserve areas and a 27-hole championship golf course. Isn't that what retirement's supposed to be all about?
Island Park; St. Armands Circle
Sarasota County boasts 35 miles of beachfront, and many of those beaches consistently win awards. Sometimes we need our Northern visitors to remind us to get those pails, chairs and bathing suits out of storage and onto the beach. It always reminds us of why we moved here in the first place.
Best Part of Living Here
OK, some might take issue with the steamy summers, but for most of the year, there really is no place like home.